Luke Maye's 20 points led North Carolina as Tar Heels fell to Virginia in ACC championship game. (Photo by Kevin Larkin/Atlantic Coast Conference, used with official permission)
BROOKLYN -- Roy Williams previewed Saturday's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship by saying his North Carolina team needed to try to play the perfect game against Virginia, the top-ranked team in the nation and owner of perhaps the most stifling defense of any in college basketball.
The Tar Heels were markedly improved from their January 6 effort in Charlottesville -- one in which the defending national champions mustered just 49 points -- but were ultimately unable to turn the tables, falling to the Cavaliers by the final of 71-63 at Barclays Center as Virginia claimed its second ACC championship under head coach Tony Bennett.
"They're really good," a gracious Williams said of Virginia. "We felt like we had to play really, really well, and I don't think we did that."
UNC (25-10) led briefly in the opening minutes, drawing first blood on a Cameron Johnson jumper and again when a Joel Berry II three-pointer made the score 5-2, but a 10-0 Virginia run put the Tar Heels behind the eight-ball early until a 10-3 spurt evened the score at 15-all with 9:21 remaining in the initial stanza. The Cavaliers regained the lead quickly, as back-to-back threes by Nigel Johnson and Ty Jerome brought on a six-point cushion that would reach as many as 10 before six straight UNC points trimmed the margin on the scoreboard to a manageable 34-30 at halftime.
The second half featured a recurring theme as it played out, as each time the Tar Heels attempted to rally and take the lead, Virginia (31-2) would turn them away. UNC managed to string together a 7-0 run to bring a nine-point deficit to just two with 11:43 remaining, but a 10-3 Cavalier stretch punctuated by a pair of long jump shots by Kyle Guy -- the eventual most valuable player of the tournament -- turned it back into a nine-point hole for the Heels, ramping up the pressure and playing right into Virginia's hands.
"That's how they build their lead," said Berry, whose 17 points trailed only Luke Maye's 20 for most among UNC players Saturday. "They get up on you and then they put pressure on you thinking you have to come down, and you're thinking you have to get a quick shot to try to get that lead back. That's where they take advantage of teams."
"We got it to two, Guy made two straight baskets and we had one easy shot we missed, and then we had a tough shot that we missed, then we had a turnover, and all of a sudden it goes from two back to nine," Williams added of Virginia's game-changing stretch. "We got it back to four at the half and I felt like, 'okay, we're hanging right in there,' but you've got to do a little bit better against Virginia than just hang in there."
Unlike Thursday's quarterfinal win against Miami, when UNC was able to come back despite a 1-for-15 effort from Maye, the Tar Heels were unable to do the same in the face of Theo Pinson being held to just four points on 1-of-10 shooting against the stingy Cavalier defense.
"I'm capable of making those shots," Pinson said. "I just didn't make them tonight. That's frustrating, but at the same time, I'm not going to hold my head down and wish I made them."
UNC will now await its fate with the rest of the nation as the Tar Heels -- a projected No. 2 seed -- will be announced among the 68-team NCAA Tournament field Sunday evening, when they will put their conference tournament defeat to rest and refocus in the hope of becoming the first repeat national champion since Florida successfully defended its title in 2007.
"We've just got to go back and we've just got to get better," Berry deadpanned. "We have to put this behind us. We wanted to win, but it didn't go in our favor, so we've just got to go back and get ready for the NCAA Tournament, and realize now this is the time where (if) you lose, you go home."